Leading Through Conflict

Catalyzing school change can turn emotional differences of opinion into learning opportunities by Mark Gerzon

In a school system in the Southwest, a group of leading citizens who had convened around school reform issues ran into an obstacle that threatened to divide the group: the debate about evolution and creationism.

At the height of the conflict, a “liberal” high school biology teacher said point-blank to the local “conservative” minister: “I will never allow the teaching of religion in my biology class because ...”

“And I will not allow young people to attend a school that denigrates our faith,” the minister interrupted, shouting in defiance.

It seemed like a dead end. These two men, both members of a community group focused on improving the public schools, seemed locked in battle, neither willing to give an inch. The tension in the room became so frightening that other participants considered leaving. Instead of bringing hope and inspiration to their local schools, this group looked as if it might increase division and cynicism.

Such conflicts are inevitable for public school leaders in today’s diverse communities. In any situation that involves change, whether it is a movement for widespread school reform or some other effort to challenge current education practices, opposing sides emerge. The ensuing dramas involve protagonists and antagonists, pro and con positions and all the other elements of conflict. Leaders who want to deal effectively with these challenging, often tense situations need to be more than good managers. They need to be mediators.

Leadership Toolbox
After a decade of research that scrutinized scores of leaders who effectively led their organizations or communities through conflict, I identified eight tools that leaders as mediators use in various combinations. Like a carpenter’s implements, these tools should be used in concert. A hammer or a saw, a screwdriver or a plane by itself can accomplish a narrow function, but complex construction jobs require that the carpenter use all of these tools.

Similarly, complex education conflicts require the leader to have a complete toolbox and the skills to use every tool in it.

A definition of each of the eight tools follows, accompanied by its antonym, key questions and a brief description of its use.

»Integral Vision: The commitment to hold all sides of the conflict, in all their complexity, in our minds and hearts. (Antonyms: tunnel vision, narrow-mindedness)
Key questions:
»Can you see your whole school or school district?

»Can your colleagues see the whole, too?

»Are you all holding the same picture in mind?

A conflict erupts within your school community. You can’t control it. You can’t avoid it. But you are definitely in it. What is the first thing you need to do?

Your first response is not about doing anything; it is about being aware, seeing the whole. So unless someone’s physical safety is at risk, it is better to take stock before taking sides. Step back and try to see the big picture. Otherwise, you risk making things worse.


Fear is the great enemy of integral vision. In a climate of fear, it is easy to respond to conflicts by resorting to stereotypes. Again, keeping all sides in our minds and hearts requires diligent practice. The week after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a 10-year-old wrote in a school essay: “Last Monday [before the attack] it was easy to be open-minded. All we had to do was listen to other people’s ideas at recess. But this Monday, we all wonder, can we be open-minded? Can we reflect on all sides of the story? And more than that, can we understand the conflict and what got us to where we are now?”

This 5th-grader’s determination to develop an integral vision is inspiring. While many North Americans and Europeans contracted in fear, this student strengthened his resolve to see and understand the whole.

»Systems Thinking: Identifying all (or as many as possible) of the significant elements related to the conflict situation and understanding the relationships between these elements. (Antonyms: distracted, ego-centered)
Key questions:
»How do the parts of your school system (teachers, administrators, central office) fit together?

»When does hot or cold conflict prevent these parts from working smoothly as one integrated system?

School leaders need systems thinking to manage an organization effectively. Because every sizable organization has departments, divisions or bureaus that develop their own self-interest, an overarching perspective — sometimes called “going to the balcony” — is essential. Leading “our” side against “their” side is thinking like a manager. Forming a “third side” that can build a bridge and transform the conflict is thinking like a mediator.

»Presence: Applying all our mental, emotional and spiritual resources to assessing and transforming the conflict. (Antonyms: distracted, half-hearted)
Key questions:
»Are you fully present in most, if not all, of your leadership roles?

»Do strains, stresses or distractions hinder your effectiveness?

»If so, where is your effectiveness compromised and what steps are you taking to obtain support in these areas?

No matter how much we may want to see the whole and think about it systemically, we cannot do so if we are not right here, right now. Presence is an expression of our capacity to apply all our personal resources to assessing and transforming the conflict.

The more stressed a school system’s decision makers, the more myopic they tend to be. Endless days of overworking are no substitute for greater awareness moment to moment. Although those around us often can see the telltale signs of declining presence, we often cannot recognize it ourselves. Our best protection against our own blind spots are relationships with co-workers that are based on candor and mutual trust.

»Inquiry: A way of asking questions that elicits essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform it. (Antonyms: know-it-all, arrogant)
Key questions:
»Do you ask the right questions of the right people at the right time?

»Are you missing vital information that you need to run your school effectively because you are not asking questions?

No one can fully understand complex systems or conflicts without asking questions. No matter how much knowledge we might have in our heads, sooner or later we need to draw on the wisdom of others. If we don’t, our analysis almost certainly will be incomplete. Whether you are a teacher in a classroom, a principal managing a single school or a superintendent managing an entire district, asking questions is a critical early step in transforming conflict.

Inquiry-based education is in peril throughout the world, including in western democracies. The more typical view of learning resembles the mental equivalent of consumerism: The more knowledge we acquire, the better “educated” we think we are. But as some of the leading researchers and practitioners in this field shared in “Strategic Questioning: Engaging People’s Best Thinking,” published in the November 2002 issue of The Systems Thinker, such education “focuses more on memorization and static answers rather than on the art of seeking new possibilities through dynamic questioning.” Instead of learning how to ask powerful questions, students are becoming highly trained, test-oriented answer givers.

Even educators in self-designated open societies often must fight to keep inquiry alive. At the University of North Carolina, for example, the university assigned Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells, as reading for incoming freshman in 2002. Local Christian groups immediately objected, complaining about the “forced Islamic indoctrination” of American students at taxpayer expense and went to court to prevent the book from being discussed during orientation week. (No doubt some Islamic fundamentalists would take the same action if a Christian text were assigned to students in their schools.)

UNC Chancellor James Moesner courageously responded in an Aug. 20, 2002, letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal that the “only way we will find the answer to the critical issues facing our society and our future is to ask tough questions [and] to provide a fertile environment in which our students can fully explore such questions.”

»Conscious Conversation: The practical application of the awareness that we are free to choose how we speak and listen. (Antonyms: habitual, scripted, mechanical speaking)
Key questions:
»Are you aware of the full range of communication options available to you?

»Do you know when to use each one for maximum impact?

»Is your school’s “meeting culture” well designed?

One of the most common causes of an ineffective meeting is that those who lead the meetings do not choose the optimal way to communicate. Being aware of the options for speaking and listening and knowing when to use them most effectively can immediately improve productivity and prevent unnecessary conflicts. Conscious communication also can save a school system’s most precious resource: time.

»Dialogue: An inquiry-based, trust-building way of communicating that maximizes the human capacity to bridge thoughts and ideas and to be innovative. (Antonyms: top-down, one-way)
Key questions:
»Are school leaders stuck in debate mode?

»Do members of your leadership team waste valuable time and energy trying to prove that their decisions are right and others’ decisions are wrong?

How many school leaders have announced their plan for the coming school year only to discover later that the plan was based on faulty assumptions? What might these education leaders do differently next time? They could encourage their colleagues to challenge their assumptions more aggressively.

The best way to excavate potentially erroneous assumptions is through open dialogue. Yet many veteran leaders do not know how to create an environment that is conducive to dialogue. Dialogue requires a leader who knows not only how to advocate (debate) but also how to inquire (dialogue). Unfortunately, most school leaders do not understand how to integrate these two styles into an effective leadership strategy. Yet doing so is critical for effective management.

I asked a group of principals and superintendents in Colorado whether school leaders should deal with tough issues through advocacy or inquiry. Two members of the group — one who believed advocacy was the right answer and another who was equally convinced that inquiry was a better choice to address tough education issues — volunteered to explain their positions.

Frank, the “advocacy” superintendent, was dealing with a longstanding community conflict surrounding the fiscal necessity of closing at least one elementary school. When Frank and his team announced they had decided to close Hawthorne Elementary School, they were inundated with angry phone calls and e-mails from parents of children at Hawthorne who were adamant that the school remain open.

Frank and his staff had analyzed the situation thoroughly during the preceding year. They had spoken with all the stakeholders, including the irate parents, and had developed a plan they believed was in the immediate best interests of the whole school district and in the long-term best interests of the students at Hawthorne.

“I want to make the case for our plan,” Frank said. “It is the right plan and I think that if I come out strong and clear, I will be able to create community consensus.”

Without comment, I asked the second superintendent, Carol, to make her case for inquiry as a superior leadership style. Carol’s district was in an uproar about the use of computers and the Internet in the high school library. When evidence was uncovered that students had accessed pornography sites on the school computer, some parents said the computer should be removed. Others said computer use should be monitored, while still others said students should be asked to sign an honor code before using the computer and then be trusted to observe it.

“I don’t feel that I should come out and advocate one approach over another because none of them sounds very good to me,” Carol said. “I think we need a community dialogue about this so that different views can be expressed and we can find a better approach together.”

The superintendents were both right. Frank was right to move to advocacy because he was dealing with a well-known issue and had carefully done his research. He had touched base with all the stakeholders and was ready to propose a solution that he was confident would work. Carol was right to move to inquiry because she was dealing with a new, emerging issue. She did not fully support any of the options presented and felt the community needed time to wrestle with the difficult choices.

The question is not which of these two approaches a leader should use, but when to use each one. Generally speaking, inquire first, then advocate. If you use inquiry effectively, you are likely to make the right decisions more often, and more people are likely to agree with you. Knowing how to combine advocacy and inquiry creates a foundation for forging collaborative relationships across differences, which leads us to our next tool.

»Bridging: The process of building partnerships and alliances that cross the divisions in an organization. (Antonyms: scapegoating, polarizing)
»Key questions:

»What relationships in your school or school district are not functioning at optimal levels?

»Do you and your colleagues know how to bridge these differences to achieve better results?

To move through the conflict, antagonists must build a bridge across whatever has separated them — not a bridge of steel and metal cables, but a bridge of leadership. We have many words for the construction materials from which these invisible bridges are built: trust, social capital, respect, healing, empathy, understanding, courage, collaboration. However we name it, it all comes down to this fundamental and mysterious truth: The energy between the adversaries must change in order for conflict to be transformed into synergy. When this shift occurs, what was impossible before now becomes possible. The stage is now set for a breakthrough.

I have learned in my educational consulting work that the most common bridges that educators need to build are between faculty and administration, between schools and central office and between administrators and school boards. The stronger these bridges can be built, the more confident students and their parents feel about the education process.

»Innovation: The creative, educational breakthrough that creates new options for moving through conflicts. (Antonyms: uncreative, stuck)
Key questions:
»Are the human relationships in your school structured to produce maximum innovation?

»How is innovation rewarded — or punished — in your school culture?

There is no advance guarantee that conflicts can be transformed into resolutions. The breakthrough must be an innovation. This innovation — a new way of doing things that perhaps could be imagined but not achieved until now — brings hope. It points the way toward resolving or transforming the conflict so education not only survives, but becomes stronger.

This is precisely what happened in the conflict between the minister and the biology teacher mentioned at the outset. After the two men locked horns, the tension was so intense that a high school librarian burst into tears.

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked, glancing back and forth at the two men who were still glaring at each other. “When this meeting is over, I go back to the library. I have to work with our children every day. How can I deal with this without taking sides against somebody I care about?”

Her vulnerable honesty shifted the energy. The conversation became more conscious, and the members of the group began engaging in genuine dialogue. The librarian’s tears reminded everyone of the pain this issue triggered and made them want to heal rather than reopen this deep cultural wound. Slowly, new insights and ideas began to surface.

“Couldn’t studying the clash between creationism and Darwinism become part of the science curriculum?” one participant asked.

“Can’t biology be taught as a science without teachers bashing Christianity?” another queried.

By the next meeting, this group of concerned citizens had begun to cut through this long-standing dispute and redesign a science curriculum based on respect, inquiry, and dialogue. In other states, educators have tried to banish creationism, discredit Darwinism or promote “intelligent design” (all ill-fated quests). But this citizens group instead broke new ground. They began to design a curriculum that would actually empower their high school students to learn to think for themselves and, given half a chance, to transform a conflict into opportunity.

Applying Tools
This school reform initiative survived because it used the mediator’s tools for transforming conflict. Through inquiry and dialogue, adversaries built bridges and, working together, fostered innovation.

Instead of being trapped by conflict, they transformed it and strengthened education in the process. In the coming years, no leadership capacity will prove more important than leading through conflict.

Mark Gerzon is president of Mediators Foundation and co-director of the Global Leadership Network, 829 13th St., Boulder, CO 80302. E-mail: markgerzon@aol.com. He is the author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Conflict into Opportunity (Harvard Business School Press).